After all the years abroad, he [Imre Galambos] is good at comparing different cultures. He taught both Chinese and American students, and he tells me that Americans don’t have the same relationship to the written word that he noticed among the Chinese. For the Chinese, writing seemed to be the root of their cultural identity, but many of his American students were unfamiliar with their nation’s literary classics. I ask him if anything in American culture might the the right equivalent of writing in China.
“Maybe it’s movies,” he says. “I think the movies are incredibly important in America. That’s how people acquire information about the world. If you ask an American about a subject – say, Buddha – the answer is always through the movies. They’ll talk about ‘The Little Buddha’ or some movie they saw.”
He continues: “I think the movies create this web that texts traditionally created in China. Within the Chinese texts, there was a view of reality, which was a view of other texts. The scholars who lived in this world, they saw their culture as a web. The didn’t live in this physical world; they didn’t talk about the physical world. It was all about history and writing. And America is the same way about movies. People in the movies talk about other movies all the time. There’s an enormous reality, like ‘movie space’ or something, in America. By this time, it’s really built up, and it’s a world that exists on its own. A lot of people experience reality through that. It’s true for me when I’m in America. I watch a lot of movies when I’m there, and I feel like reality is American movies. You might say something and then I’ll say, oh, that reminds me of something in a movie. It’s like dreams and realities, all blending together. You have this feeling, this deja vu feeling about everything.
“The movies are writing. They serve the same purpose; it’s just a different language. In China, they wrote the most in the times when they most needed to redefine themselves. It is not passivity; it is creativity. It’s not taking notes. It’s about rethinking the past and creating the present. It’s about justifying the present, crating the ideology. So in America they have these movies that make people feel American. Like Pearl Harbor. It’s similar to writing, to books. But the movies stay in the mind longer, may be because it’s a more visual language. And it becomes a way that people determine their values. You have these models and patterns that are ready to use. They give a language, just like books do. They give you a language to parse out your personality, to understand it, or display it, or express it.”
– Hungarian born Chinese language scholar Imre Galambos in Oracle Bones – A Journey Between China’s Past and Present by Peter Hessler P.445-446
If you want a street-level understanding of China today in the throes of massive change, Peter Hessler’s book Oracle Bones is a fine introduction.
The book is divided into several chapters, all independent units. So you don’t have to worry about reading the preceding chapters.
Your county library should definitely have the book.